With an excess of officers in the Continental Army and little prospect of getting a field command, James Monroe resigned his commission in 1779. He became a Lieutenant-Colonel of Virginia forces, but was unable to recruit enough men to form a new regiment. In 1780 he went to North Carolina as a military observer for Governor Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had begun the study of law.
From the end of the war until 1811, James Monroe practiced law, served as a state and federal legislator, was governor of Virginia four times, and saw diplomatic service in France, Great Britain, and Spain. National security and military preparedness were consistent themes throughout his career—another legacy of his war service.
In 1811 Monroe became secretary of state in the administration of President James Madison. At the start of the War of 1812, and especially as a British naval and military force entered the Chesapeake region in the summer of 1814, Monroe and others called for better defenses for the U.S. capital, but little was done.
British troops came ashore at Benedict, Maryland on August 19, 1814 and began marching to Bladensburg. Monroe went into the field himself to count the numbers of ships and men in the British attack force and report back to President Madison.
At the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, the British quickly routed an American force of regulars and poorly organized militia. In the confused command situation, redeployment of units in the American line by Monroe and Brigadier General William Winder, the American commander, had little effect on the outcome. Madison and most of the cabinet, including Monroe, stayed on the field until the end and narrowly avoided capture. The British moved on to Washington, DC, where they burned many public buildings, including the White House.
In the aftermath of this disaster, Monroe assumed the office of secretary of war while remaining secretary of state. Although the British soon departed Washington and failed to take Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the possibility of another attack on the capital finally spurred better preparations, which Monroe directed. The war ended in February, 1815 with US ratification of the Treaty of Ghent.
Elected president in 1816, Monroe urged Congress to appropriate sufficient funds for an expanded army and navy and a modern system of coastal forts. While the response fell short of his expectations, work did begin on new installations, including one in Virginia begun in 1819 that was named Fort Monroe in his honor.
While most of his public service career was spent as a civilian, James Monroe never forgot the bond he shared with his Revolutionary War comrades. Speaking to the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati on Independence Day, 1817, he affirmed that bond:
“No approbation can be more dear to me than that of those with whom I have had the honour to share the common toils and perils of the war for our Independence. We were embarked in the same sacred cause of liberty, and we have lived to enjoy the reward of our common labours. Many of our companions in arms fell in the field before our independence was achieved, and many, less fortunate than ourselves, lived not to witness the perfect fulfillment of their hopes in the prosperity & happiness of our country. You do but justice to yourselves in claiming the confidence of your country, that you can never desert the standard of freedom . . . May your children never forget the sacred duties devolved on them to preserve the inheritance so gallantly acquired by their fathers.”
Scott H. Harris became Director of the James Monroe Museum in July, 2011. The museum, which is administered by the University of Mary Washington, is the world’s largest repository of artifacts and archives related to James Monroe, fifth President of the United States.
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